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Posts from the ‘Vietnam ’09’ Category

Vietnam last hurrah: Seeing to unfinished business

I was left conflicted after an experience at the start of my trip. One of my reasons for visiting Vietnam was to see where dad had been based during his tour of duty between 1967-68 with one of the New Zealand rifle companies. I organised a private day trip from Saigon out to Phuoc Tuy Province and did manage to see everything I wanted to… except the site of the 1st Australian Task Force camp, the place where up to 5,000 Aussies and Kiwis had been based. (Aerial photo)

My guides either didn’t know about it or didn’t want to stop on account of the time. Whatever the reason, the outcome didn’t rest easy with me and I hated that I would leave Vietnam without achieving that goal.

In 2007 Dad's company marked the 40th anniversary of its deployment to Vietnam

In 2007 Dad’s company marked the 40th anniversary of its deployment to Vietnam

Dad's old pocket guide to Vietnam - a US publication distributed to foreign soldiers

Dad’s old pocket guide to Vietnam – a US publication distributed to foreign soldiers

A few days later it dawned on me: could I somehow squeeze it in? And so plans were put in place: my flight from Da Nang was brought forward and another car/driver/guide was found to hustle me out there on my last day in Vietnam.

One minor problem – I was due to check in for my flight at 1pm and it was a 6-7 hour return trip. It would be tight!

They picked me up at 6.30am and I sat back for another loong ride out to Nui Dat, near Ba Ria, on the way to Vung Tau on the coast. Even with the help of a ‘short cut’ it was still three hours before we were in the vicinity… and then I was horrified to discover that neither the driver nor guide knew exactly where to go. They fluffed around for about 15mins, stopping no less than six times to ask locals for directions. I couldn’t believe it! (Later he said the area had changed and landmarks he had known were no longer there.)

Eventually we were at the old brick gate posts where I’d been a couple of weeks before, marking the entry to the 1ATF base. Once I understood the lay of the land, I was completely taken aback – the camp was ‘just there’. How easy it would have been to stop here on my first visit! Exasperating.

View entering the camp

View entering the camp

Gate post, Nui Dat, Vietnam

Concrete remnants on the corner of what could have been a main entry into the camp

Concrete remnants beside what could have been a main entry into the camp

Same concrete bit from behind

Looking out what I think was the main entry into the camp (the concrete shown before was in the top left corner of this shot)

Looking out what I think was the main entry into the camp (the concrete shown before was in the top left corner of this shot)

We couldn’t stay for long so I blasted around, inspecting the gate posts and wandering through the rubber plantation, down the lines where tents and whatnot had been erected 40 years before. Surreal stuff. I found a few residual remains of concrete structures but there was very little else to be seen. With more time I would have headed in deeper.

A local man came up behind me and gestured hello, then he and my guide chatted. Turns out he was ex-Viet Cong. He took us over to a sunken well that the camp had apparently used.

Site of 1ATF camp, Nui Dat, Vietnam

Site of 1ATF camp, Nui Dat, Vietnam

Me

Site of 1ATF camp, Nui Dat, Vietnam

I think there are a couple more rocks with faded paint residue but this was all I had time to find

I think there are a couple more rocks with faded paint residue but this was all I had time to find

This was the 161 Battery underground telephone exchange, dug out in 1966

This was the 161 Battery underground telephone exchange, dug out in 1966

Concrete remnant, 1ATF camp, Nui Dat, Vietnam

A concrete... thingy... ?

A concrete… thingy… ?

On the thingy is etched 'G. Love, 1967'. I did some scouting online and there was a Corporal George Love with an Australian army engineer corps who was posted to the 1ATF headquarters in 1967

On the thingy is etched ‘G. Love, 1967’. I did some scouting online and there was a Corporal George Love with an Australian army engineer corps who was posted to the 1ATF headquarters in 1967

The ex-Viet Cong soldier who showed us the well

The ex-Viet Cong soldier who showed us the well

The old well

The old well

Track, site of 1ATF camp, Nui Dat, Vietnam

View exiting the camp

View exiting the camp

It was too rushed really and all too soon it was time to head to the airport where we literally arrived with three minutes to spare. A bit of stress for all concerned but I was very appreciative to both men for their help in getting some closure.

And with that, I went home.

Mum and dad met me during transit in Auckland

Mum and dad met me during transit in Auckland

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Vietnam: 26~Da Nang on two wheels

I didn’t know much about Da Nang, and the scant knowledge I did have was down to war related associations portrayed on televisions shows when I was growing up. Before the trip a light bit of research indicated it would be worth a brief stop-off. The usual see, snap and run.

My uninspiring but cheap hotel was about 10km away from the beachfront. After arriving off the train I went to investigate the other side of the Han River and for the first time during the trip I was aware of locals eyeing me like the unusual sight I guess I was. The riverfront area was quite appealing and beyond it I found local neighbourhoods well off the beaten path for the majority of tourists.

Since I wasn’t going to cover much on foot I organised a motorbike tour the following day with the brother of the girl on the front desk. He ran a travel agency and spoke pretty good English. It was a nice change to nip around on a bike and a number of the snaps below were just quickies taken on the fly.

We went past an old military site. Tran, my guide, said the Vietnamese army now use the land and while I could take a photo of the old hangars near the road, I wasn’t allowed to of the gun emplacements further along (which as we rode past looked to have hardware installed).

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Marble Mountains

A short way out of town are the Marble Mountains, a cluster of large rugged hills made from limestone and you can probably guess the other type of rock. At the base is a small city of shops selling sculptures from harvested stone (though I think now they’ve put a stop to local extraction) but the main feature is the protected mountain with several temples and caves built into it.

Tran left me to it. I paid 15,000 VND to enter and began to tackle the steep ascent. It came complete with a big juicy black centipede which I watched in mild horror for a few seconds.

Thuy Son Mountain was impressive and at times hazy with all the incense being burned. It seems to be a deeply spiritual place for many.

After I’d ripped round everything I found Tran and promptly got ushered into the sculpture shop next door. Clearly I wasn’t in the market for marble pillars for the driveway at home but did get a good deal on a couple of elephant bookends which I’m looking at as I prepare this post.

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China Beach

We stopped at China Beach (aka My Khe Beach), a name I remembered well from watching the tv series as a teenager. It was too hot to linger but I did walk along the beach a ways.

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Son Tra Peninsula

I also wanted to ride up and around Son Tra Peninsula but it was much bigger than I had appreciated and maybe not something to tackle on a scooter. The main peak was known as Monkey Mountain by the Americans, who installed radars and whatnot on it, and I had hoped I might be able to see some traces of that. But no.

Like the coastline between Da Nang and Hoi An, more resorts were being built around what still seemed a fairly pristine peninsula. Given the economic woes of the world, I wonder if any got completed.

On the way back into town we rode over a big new bridge that had opened only a few days before to help link the peninsula with Da Nang.

And that was the end of the tour. A little later in the afternoon I went out to the airport. I was to have flown back to Saigon in the morning but brought it forward so that I could fit in some unfinished business before flying home.

Da Nang Airport with new terminal under construction (it opened the following year)

Da Nang Airport with new terminal under construction (it opened the following year)

Vietnam: 25~Hue to Da Nang by train

I have a bit of a thing for train journeys so had wanted to work in a ride on the Reunification Express. Planning determined that this would be just the short stint from Hue to Da Nang which didn’t seem long enough but was better than nothing.

Some of the friends I’d left a few days before were taking the train up to Hanoi – with a sleeper car booked and loads of leftover Veuve, I was plenty jealous!

But… I heard from Danielle before I left and she said it had been a nightmare! So maybe my two hour journey was going to be just fine.

Over at the station I wrestled my bags inside, waited, tried to find someone to clarify arrangements with, gave up when no one seemed the slightest bit interested, and just went out to the platform with the gathering crowd.

Waiting at Hue train station

Hue train station

The train arrived and I wrestled my bags onboard and discovered a couple of things. Bags had to fit in the overhead racks. My pack did, but my bag containing all my shopping did not – nothing for it but to stuff it in the footwell. Leg room is usually inadequate at the best of times, today it was ridiculous.

Onboard the Reunification Express

My second discovery was the stubborn Vietnamese woman inhabiting my carefully selected window seat (booked from NZ well in advance). A frustrating situation but expressing such sentiments in English was going to achieve nothing. Fortunately there was a seat in front and I would have to make do with half a window. At least it was still on the side that would enjoy coast views.

Similar shot to one a few days before, except that was from a car. I was taken to Lang Co over the bridge for lunch on the way north

Similar shot to one a few days before, except that was from a car. I had been taken to Lang Co over the bridge for lunch on the way north

Coastal view Hue to Da Nang by train

And I was able to enjoy the views. It is a beautiful coastline with stunning green and blue combinations. The railway runs closer to sea level and around the hill rather than through it. It was good having the added context of the Hai Van Pass drive a few days before.

Coastal view Hue to Da Nang by train

The experience with the stubborn woman was more than made up for by the friendly Vietnamese girl who helped sort out my seat situation, bought me a can of Coke and helped me get my bags off at the other end. She was lovely.

A lovely Vietnamese girl befriended me

Coastal view Hue to Da Nang by train

I distracted myself with views and photos but after a time I was well and truly over having my knees up at chin level.

Shame about the wires

Shame about the wires

We arrived in Da Nang where I’d be spending a little over 24 hours.

On the outskirts of Da Nang

On the outskirts of Da Nang

On the outskirts of Da Nang

I couldn’t wait to stand up.

Vietnam: 24~Two stabs at Hue’s Imperial City

Now I’ll finally string together the last couple of posts from my 2009 trip to Vietnam.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

After returning from the DMZ tour I had the afternoon to explore Hue before heading south the next day. Half a day wasn’t much but the only thing I wanted to do was return to the old walled city.

The map I used showing relative locations of the citadel and my hotel

The map I used showing relative locations of the citadel and my hotel

First stab

When I first arrived in Hue a couple of days before, I did a recce over to the citadel.

Sunset over the Perfume River

Sunset over the Perfume River

Hue from the Trang Tien bridge

Hue from the Trang Tien bridge

Crossing the moat to enter the citadel

Crossing the moat to enter the citadel

The citadel is a city within a city within a city; essentially a walled fortress. It was used from the early 1800s to mid 1900s when the Nguyen family ruled Vietnam. During this time, Hue was regarded as the capital city.

The last Emperor abdicated in 1945 and Vietnam then entered into many years of war with France initially, the USA (and others) later, and of course with itself.

The flag tower from inside the citadel walls

The flag tower from inside the citadel walls

It was far too late in the day to go inside so I decided I may as well just go for a walk around the citadel. I may not have embarked on this If I’d done my homework.

Across the moat a building peeks over the wall

Across the moat a building peeks over the wall

The citadel walls are so long (about 2km each side) that the sun had well and truly set by the time I finished

The citadel walls are so long (about 2km each side) that the sun had well and truly set by the time I finished

The Trang Tien bridge is eye-catching both day and night

A bonus of my night time wanderings was seeing the bridge illuminations

At least temperature wise it was the right time of day for a long walk.

Second stab

Fast forward two days. Traipsing through a large walled complex is not an activity to be undertaken in the hottest part of the day, particularly if you add on the half hour walk each way. But of course that’s what happened.

The flag tower again. I love a good symmetrical layout

The flag tower again. I love a good symmetrical layout

Ngo Mon Gate, the main entrance to the Imperial City

Ngo Mon Gate, the main entrance to the Imperial City

It struck me as odd that there were no guidebooks available to purchase. As a result I didn’t really know what I was looking at (some of the captions I researched for this post) and I guarantee I didn’t see all there was to see.

Gate to Thai Hoa Palace, "Palace of Supreme Harmony"

Gate to Thai Hoa Palace, “Palace of Supreme Harmony”

Thai Hoa Palace was an important ceremonial venue

Thai Hoa Palace was an important ceremonial venue

Interior of the Thai Hoa Palace

Interior of the Thai Hoa Palace

And hot! It was stifling. A bit on the warm side.

A stunning wall feature

A stunning wall feature

More beautiful design detail

More beautiful design detail

Inner walls marking boundaries between the inner zones

Inner walls marking boundaries between the inner zones. The Imperial City perimeter is about 2.5km long

In 1968 the Battle of Hue saw most of the city destroyed as the USA and South Vietnamese (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) recaptured Hue from the North Vietnamese Army. The citadel faired poorly with bombs and napalm dropped directly on it, and only a few out of the 160 structures survived.

One of the Purple Forbidden City gates

One of the Purple Forbidden City gates, gold dragon in the distance

The Royal Reading Room inside the Purple Forbidden City, one of only a few buildings to remain undamaged from the Vietnam-American War

The Royal Reading Room inside the Purple Forbidden City, one of only a few buildings to remain undamaged

How old is that tree I wonder?

How old is that tree I wonder?

A wall inside the Purple Forbidden City with a peek through to one of the areas under renovation

A crumbling wall with a peek through to one of the areas under renovation

Lotus pond

Lotus pond

Decaying steps and walkway

Decaying steps and walkway

Not much to look at now but I'd love to know what these barren spaces were like back in the day

Not much to look at now but I’d love to know what these barren spaces were like back in the day

I can’t remember if I left when I felt I had seen it all, or seen enough. Or maybe I was just hungry. Whatever the reason I walked back to my side of town.

Looking west along the Perfume River from the Phu Xuan bridge

Looking west along the Perfume River from the Phu Xuan bridge

Near drenched through from heat and humidity, my transformation was complete when I got caught in the afternoon downpour.

Vietnam: 23~DMZ Tour part two

I returned in a very hot and sweaty state to the blessed air conditioning of the car and was whisked off to the Truong Son national cemetery. Here more than 10,000 NVA are buried. It has the uniformity and order of a military cemetery, neat rows split up into sections based on province, but without the grace and beauty of say Arlington or Tyne Cot. Each identical headstone has an incense holder and scattered around are temples for worshipping in.

Truong Son National Cemetery

Truong Son National Cemetery

We touched down briefly at the site of the Doc Mieu Firebase, an elevated area above the road and when I visited, pretty overgrown. Asided from the rusted tank, I’m not sure how much there is.

Doc Mieu Firebase

The final stop on this busy day was the Ben Hai River, a useful demarcation between north and south. During the Vietnam-American War, a demilitarised zone was instituted which spanned 5km either side of the river. Today just off Highway 1 on the north side is a museum and monument with huge Vietnamese flag; there’s another monument on the southern bank.

The main feature though is the Hien Luong bridge, aka Peace Bridge. Originally built by the French, in 1967 it was bombed and although rebuilt, ten years ago it underwent a restoration and was reopened to pedestrians. Walking along the bridge is well worth the stop alone, but I also really enjoyed the museum which contained many interesting photos (with captions translated into English).

On the Hien Luong Bridge, aka the Peace Bridge. The vehicle bridge is adjacent with the monument on the other side of that

On the Peace Bridge. The vehicle bridge is adjacent with the northern monument on the other side of that

Facing south with the reunification monument on the far bank

Facing south with the reunification monument on the far bank

Looking west along the Ben Hai River. The stack of loudspeakers was one of several used to broadcast propaganda to the south

Looking west along the Ben Hai River. The stack of loudspeakers was one of several used to broadcast propaganda to the south

I was then taken to my hotel for the night at a place called Cua Tung Beach at the mouth of the Ben Hai River. This was a small place with no foreigners, no English-speaking people*, no internet.

*The only snippets of Vietnamese I knew were hello, thank you, and a phrase from Platoon that my brother pressed upon me to use but was shall we say a tad inappropriate.

The room was adequate enough and had a proper toilet. I am quite the wuss when it comes to food, especially when nothing is in English and I don’t know what the meat is, so consequently I didn’t have dinner or breakfast. (That leftover protein bar still in my luggage came in handy, squished though it was.)

The coastline was quite rugged and beautiful.

Cua Tung Beach and my coastal hotel

Cua Tung Beach and my coastal hotel

The river mouth

The river mouth

My TV entertainment (Vietnamese dubbing naturally)

My TV entertainment (Vietnamese dubbing, naturally)

View from my window the next morning

View from my window the next morning

The next morning they remembered to pick me up and we got underway again. A short distance away was the Vinh Moc tunnels. Here another guide showed me around.

Unlike other tunnel complexes used primarily for fighting, these tunnels were depended upon by the local villagers to live in. There are three levels, the deepest being 30m. This depth was beyond the reach of bombs and consequently no villagers lost their lives in this way while underground, making the tunnels a huge success. It’s amazing to think that they spent most of their time for several years down there. Very resilient people.

A general flavour of the terrain above ground with trenches leading to and from tunnel entries. Bomb craters are still visible

A general flavour of the terrain above ground with trenches leading to and from tunnel entries. Bomb craters are still visible

Given the tunnels were built essentially for the purpose of relocating the village, they were constructed a bit larger. Nevertheless, given my claustrophobic and arachnophobic tendencies, and my previous experiences at Cu Chi and Long Phuoc, it was with trepidation that I wandered over to the tunnel entry. However, once I had gestured what the word ‘spider’ meant she was quick to assure me that these tunnels were free of such monstrosities. So in I went.

argh!

argh!

I was amazed to be able to stand up. I think this was used as a meeting room so was relatively spacious

I was amazed to be able to stand up. I think this was used as a meeting room so was relatively spacious

A birthing chamber complete with classical re-enactment. Around 17 babies were born underground

A birthing chamber complete with classical re-enactment. Around 17 babies were born underground

We popped out along the coast. There were seven such exit/entry points along the South China Sea

We popped out along the coast. There were seven such exit/entry points along the South China Sea

Heading back into the tunnels

Heading back into the tunnels

We went down and popped out on the coastal side, then back in to almost where we started from. I survived!

It was time to head back to Hue now. Two more stops were made, the first at the Quang Tri Citadel. It was built in the 1820s, similar to but much smaller than the one in Hue. There is not much to see though as the city was virtually bombed to bits in 1972. Parts of the citadel have been restored and you can certainly get a feel for the structure of it.

Quang Tri Citadel

Quang Tri Citadel

Quang Tri Citadel

Quang Tri Citadel

The final brief stop was along a stretch of road called a few different things, but generally similar in meaning to ‘Highway of Horror’. Along here hundreds of civilians were killed trying to flee and today there are about 67 (I’m sure that’s what the guide said) cemeteries of varying sizes along the highway.

Highway of Horror, Vietnam

The tour was challenging to do but rewarding. I returned being able to visualise where these places actually were and see something of the terrain in which fighting occurred. While I expected to be able to see more at some sites than was possible, other stops unexpectedly made up for it. I saw memorials and other permanent reminders of destruction. I also saw something of how pockets of Vietnamese live following this massive part of their history, from coping as best they can in the back yards of battlefields through to leveraging the tourism that has since grown from it. I imagine that resentment may linger in some places by some people but I saw no evidence of this.

I was deposited back at my hotel and had the sense that I tipped the guide and driver less than they were expecting (I found tipping in Vietnam a frustrating experience). But now, back on my own schedule, I had half a day to go and explore the Imperial City.

Vietnam: 22~DMZ Tour part one

A priority of mine for the trip was to find some sites from the Vietnam-American War to get a feel for locations and landscapes. I had ticked a few things off already, the most significant being a partially successful trip out to where dad had been based with the main contingent of Kiwis and Aussies in South Vietnam. From Hue I was able to book a 1.5 day tour of the old demilitarised zone between the North and South. This wasn’t a directly relevant area for the New Zealanders but was extremely prominent for the US.

In the morning I met a new guide and driver. They thought it unusual (if not strange) that I was doing the tour, especially on my own, since the main takers are groups of veterans. Anyhow we got underway.

This is a map of the DMZ and shows many of the locations included on the tour.

It wasn’t a busy time of year for them but only the day before they had returned from taking some ex-Marines to their old haunts. One had given my guide a commemorative coin which was proudly shown to me.

Khe Sanh Veterans commemorative coin

I would see more evidence of these gentlemen later in the day.

We travelled north to Dong Ha city, in Quang Tri province. It is a poor region, not having the agricultural potential like most other areas. We stopped first at the shell of a school that was bombed in 1972 and stands today as it was left.

Dong Ha bombed school

During the course of the day I realised that both the itinerary I had been sent and the other reference material from the internet were a bit out of date. The Ai Tu airfield for example is no longer a stop as the site is now a concrete factory. As an indicator of Vietnam’s development, that’s a good sign. But over time the remnants of battlefields are diminishing, and those that do remain (often in remote areas) often have limited access on account of the risk of unexploded ordnance.

In Dong Ha we hung a left on to Highway 9 toward Cam Lo.

We stopped at the site of Camp Carroll, a Marine Corps artillery base, which involved a short walk up from the road. A feature of this camp was íts huge 175mm gun capability and the only relics still evident (that the guide knew of at least) were the concrete pads that they had been sited on. I also saw a scrap of old sandbag cloth.

Vietnamese monument at the entry to Camp Carroll

Vietnamese monument at the entry to Camp Carroll

Camp Carroll once stood here and the 175mm guns on the concrete pads below

Camp Carroll once stood here and the 175mm guns on the concrete pads below

On we went to a place which offered a vista of the Rockpile, Razorback and there but obscured or distant, Mutter’s Ridge battlefield and Fire Support Base Fuller.

The Rockpile, used as an obervation post and artillery base

The Rockpile, used as an obervation post and artillery base, with Razorback Ridge in behind

Highway 9 has been upgraded but signs of the old road were still around. I walked on a short section of it near part of the original Ho Chi Minh trail. This was an area inhabited by the Bru people with their distinctive stilt houses.

A section of old Highway 9 running parallel to the new road

A section of old Highway 9 running parallel to the new road

The Ho Chi Minh trail apparently crossed the stream just over there a ways

The Ho Chi Minh trail apparently crossed the stream just over there a ways

A house belonging to the Bru people

A house belonging to the Bru people

A bit further on Highway 14 branched off. The tour did not go down there but it’s where the likes of the A Shau Valley and Hamburger Hill are located.

Highway 14 that way

Highway 14 that way

Continuing west toward the Laos border, alongside a river that the guide said was often used to smuggle goods between Laos and Vietnam, we arrived in Khe Sanh village (he pronounced it as “Cashun”).

Khe Sanh village

A Vietnamese war monument in Khe Sanh village

A Vietnamese war monument in Khe Sanh village

Very close by is the site of the old Marine Corps combat base and adjoining airfield. The Battle of Khe Sanh was one of the most famous (or infamous) of the war. I had expected much from this visit but it was anticlimactic as there didn’t seem to be anything authentically in situ. However, the climate for once was lovely and cool.

There is a small museum and some outdoor exhibits but you can no longer walk onto the airfield – or at least I wasn’t able to – due to the risk of nasty stuff still lurking. The runway is now just red clay stretching down behind the museum grounds. You can tell the area was very flat with hills in the distance but it is now quite vegetatious (don’t think that’s a word but I like it) so viewing was challenged.

Gate leading out to the runway. Unfortunately, a locked gate

Gate leading out to the runway. Unfortunately, a locked gate

A useful sign

A useful sign

Part of the runway remains and the result of me holding my camera up and over the fence and hoping for the best

Part of the runway remains and the result of me holding my camera up and over the fence and hoping for the best

I walked around the static displays. Around the back of the museum a local, who was obviously trying to avoid being seen by my guide, tried to sell me American dog tags.

The museum building and a Chinook

The museum building and a Chinook

Inside the museum one nice find was the visitor book entries by the ex-Marines my guide had taken through only a couple of days before.

Visitor book, Khe Sanh museum

Visitor book, Khe Sanh museum

One of the museum displays

One of the museum displays

We left Khe Sanh for the site of the Special Forces Camp at Lang Vei. This was overrun in 1968 during the campaign which saw the eventual withdrawal of the US from Khe Sanh. One of the North Vietnamese Army tanks successful in the Battle of Lang Vei ís displayed on an elevated platform but there is nothing to see of the original camp.

Lang Vei

Lang Vei

This was the furthest west we would go. We made a welcome lunch stop at a hotel back in Khe Sanh where I was the only dining guest, save for a group of Buddhist monks from Saigon.

Back in Cam Lo we headed north on Highway 15 to the Con Thien Firebase. This turned out to be the highlight of the day.

The guide hadn’t been there for a while and had to look carefully for the turn-off. We left the driver with the car and set out on the 1km walk (rather, slog). The area was quite ‘vegetatious’ but there wasn’t much shade. It was hot, damn hot.

Con Thien was Marine Corps camp and prominent in the McNamara Line defensive barrier strategy. Its location was very strategic with the elevated part of the base affording panoramic views across the DMZ, Ben Hai River and into North Vietnam. One not-so-good aspect: it was within range of artillery from the North.

Some ways in, underneath rubber trees, were the remains of bunkers – very decimated but authentic sections of concrete and sandbags. There was other stuff worth seeing so we trudged on. I’m glad we did, though it did involve stopping at a local farm house to ask for directions!

Amongst the rubber trees were remnants of defensive structures and sandbags

Amongst the rubber trees were remnants of defensive structures and sandbags

We set off (the blind leading the blind for a while it seemed), looking for I didn't know what at that stage

We set off (the blind leading the blind for a while it seemed), looking for I didn’t know what at that stage

An observation post / bunker - my reward after the hot slog!

An observation post / bunker – my reward after the hot slog!

In my sweaty glory (yich!)

In my sweaty glory (yich!)

Con Thien Firebase bunker

With these views across the DMZ it's not hard to understand why this was such a key (but also vulnerable) position

With these views across the DMZ it’s not hard to understand why this was such a key (but also vulnerable) position

There were a couple more sites to see before we reached the overnight stop just north of the Ben Hai River. I’ll finish the tour in the next post.

Vietnam: 21~Hue via the Hai Van Pass

To get to Hue I decided to go by road over the Hai Van Pass.

There is a tunnel route which saves something like an hour from the journey, but the pass road is more scenic with more interesting features. It also gives you an appreciation (if that’s the right word) of driving in Vietnam.

I was picked up from the hotel by the same driver and guide I had the previous day, a surprise seeing as I had booked the private tours through different agencies online before I left home. We left Hoi An for Danang initially, then beyond.

Most cars and trucks these days go via the Hai Van Tunnel which was good for us as it meant very little traffic on the hill road. They built two tunnels, I was told, the second being either for the military or a back-up to the main tunnel.

Prior to the main tunnel opening my guide said the Hai Van Pass was “very dangerous road”. Construction wise, it was sealed and reasonably wide but the corners were frequent and sharp and the cambers dubious.

The issue is compounded by the local driving style. Slower vehicle in the way? No problem, just overtake. Something coming the other way? No problem, they’ll veer off the road a little to make room.

Case in point (taken a couple of days later)

Case in point (taken a couple of days later)

It was unreal. My guide said there were 10-15 road deaths in Vietnam daily.

The pass sits on a mountain range (Hai Van means Sea Cloud) and not only has fantastic views, historically it was also of strategic military importance. We stopped at the top.

At the top of the Pass looking back to Danang

At the top of the pass looking back to Danang

Looking out to Da Nang Bay and Son Tra Island

Looking out to Da Nang Bay and Son Tra Island. The sweeping beach area below was once home to the Hai Van leper colony. Nearby along this coastline was Red Beach where the US Marines landed in 1965

I was grateful to my guide who helped deflect any interest from the vendors who have shops and stalls on one side of the road, and who are notorious for their aggressive selling techniques. (In preparing this I read that a new tourist site is being planned as it has degraded since the tunnel opened.)

One side of the road at the summit

One side of the road at the summit

And the other

And the other. Venture closer at your peril

There are a blend of old fortifications on the hill. The brickwork was erected during the Tran dynasty (1225 to 1400) when the pass was a significant border crossing between the kingdoms of Champa and Dai Viet.

Other structures were erected by the French in 1826 – the timing suggests they were used to help defend the Nguyen Dynasty from a peasant uprising. More than a century later they were utilised by the American and South Vietnamese armies.

The Hai Van Gate. This is written above the arch in Han script

The Hai Van Gate. This is written above the arch in Han script

The Chinese fortifications were added to by the French in 1826 and are peppered with bullet holes

The Chinese fortifications were added to by the French and are peppered with bullet holes

Looking north toward the beach where we would stop for lunch.

One of the French pill boxes at the pass. North is the beach where we would stop next

Left to my own devices I would have been happy to linger a while longer but we were on a schedule. We descended the pass to our lunch stop, Lang Co, a popular beach destination for Vietnamese. The food was fine but the little sandfly things just about drove me spear.

Over the hill now and not far from Lang Co. The bridge is part of the tunnel road

Over the hill now and not far from Lang Co. The bridge is part of the tunnel road

Lang Co Beach

Lang Co Beach

From there it was about 80km to Hue where I was dropped at my hotel. I went for a wander and found the Citadel, the ancient walled city and World Heritage Site, but arrived too late to go inside. I walked around the perimeter instead (in itself not a minor undertaking!) and planned to return in a couple of days.

Before then I would be embarking on one of my trip highlights: a tour of the DMZ.

Vietnam contd: 20~My Son ruins & Hoi An farewell

Earlier this year I started recounting my 2009 visit to Vietnam. My trip to the UK interrupted that and now it’s time to get back and finish off the last few days. Some links…

And without any further mucking about…

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I was making it through a long day following a big night out. Early that morning I was picked up on a pre-arranged private tour to My Lai where a massacre took place during the Vietnam War. Now it was the afternoon and we were heading north back to Hoi An.

One other stop was planned. About 30km off the main road is My Son (which I heard pronounced as “me sun”), basically a kind of mini Angkor Wat. Which is to say, it is an historical temple complex.

Entering My Son

The temples date back to between 4th and 14th centuries and are laid out in various groupings. I walked around with my guide who rattled off various information snippets.

The My Son remains are referred to in groups, often associated by age or architectural styles. This is part of Group B

Sadly many had been damaged if not decimated in the War but there’s still a lot to see.

The temples are Hindu and were built to worship Shiva

The temples are Hindu and were built to worship Shiva

My Son temples

Elephants

An inscription in the old language Cham, I think … god knows what it says but it is quite aesthetically pleasing

Me and temple C2 (10th century or thereabouts)

Me and temple C2 (10th century or thereabouts)

A roof cavity and resident bats, happily sleeping, even after my flash went off

My guide found a bomb casing in his size. I did not

My guide found a bomb casing in his size. I did not

My Son is in a valley surrounded by jungle covered hills

Shelter and extra reinforcing to protect these ruins. Some deterioration is the result of time; most is due to Vietnam War bombing

Trail back to the carpark

Finally I made it back to the resort. We went out for a lateish dinner as the final event of the group all together.

Finale dinner

Finale dinner

me

Excuse the photo – it’s just to show the maxi dress, being one of three items I had made in Hoi An. Now, three years on, they’re all still wearing well. The dress is not something I get to wear often and it was good to give it its first airing while still in Vietnam. The tailoring is one reason I would love to go back to Hoi An (the beach and old town being other big drawcards).

The following day we all dispersed. It had been a fun week’s interlude to the solo travels and now it was time to start the final phase of my itinerary. Next stop: Hue.

Vietnam: 19~Site of the massacre at My Lai

Everyone else had a low key sort of day planned, a very sensible idea after the previous night’s activities. But one thing I wanted to see while based in Hoi An involved a day trip by car, and I had scheduled that into this particular day. What I didn’t plan was doing this on three hours sleep, especially as the day began with a three hour drive south!

During my research for the trip I read for the first time about the My Lai massacre. One day in March 1968, American soldiers killed hundreds of non-combatant Vietnamese in the village of My Lai in what was one of the darkest incidents of the war. I was intrigued enough to buy the book Four Hours in My Lai and then felt compelled to go and look at the peace park that has been established as a memorial. I booked a private tour, with guide, driver and car.

My Lai is 150km south of Hoi An. While for obvious reasons I was unable to stay awake for the entire trip there, when I was conscious there was much to see as we travelled through rural areas and smaller towns.

Working the rice field

After I took this (out the car window) the guy held out his hand for payment!

The road also went past the site of an old American military base. Nothing to see now, save for a road and some concrete hangars in the distance.

Quick stop at the edge of what used to be a US military base at Chu Lai

Finally we arrived. First up I was taken to watch a couple of documentaries and look through a small museum.

The massacre was not made public until 19 months after it happened at which time the US military launched an investigation. It is impossible to imagine how soldiers could seemingly flip the way they did. The barbaric event has been described as the manifestation of high stress and anxiety after the soldiers saw over a period of time many of their peers injured and killed. Also, they were often unsure who the enemy fighters actually were since most Vietnamese in the south dressed similarly, leading to many soliders being convinced that villagers were Viet Cong or Viet Cong sympathisers.

The exact number of victims was never established but is probably between 387 and 504. The memorial lists 504 names.

Part of a long list naming the victims

Then we walked around the grounds, starting with the large and impactful monument.

The My Lai memorial

There are several parts to the outside space, each very thought provoking. Footprints, sites where houses stood, family burial areas, cut marks in trees, artworks, and just knowing that death had lain everywhere.

The footpath contains preserved footprints of boots and barefeet, made when the memorial park was established to recreate patterns from soldiers and villagers

The ditch referred to is in the next photo

There are numerous plots where village dwellings stood before they were burned down

My guide said that a lot of tourists come here but not many Americans.

A couple of hours flew by and then we had to get going as there was another big activity lined up for the afternoon. More gawking out the window before we stopped for lunch about an hour back up the road. It was typical of a small restaurant in a Vietnamese town. Given my conservative approach to food experiences, this was quite bold for me!

Lunch stop... I had a few concerns after seeing how the food was stored but no unwellness resulted!

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This is part of a series recounting my 2009 trip to Vietnam.

Vietnam: 18~A birthday party and some local night life

After the visit to the markets and the cooking school, the evening was reserved for the birthday party.

Danielle and Mark, the tour organisers and friends from way back, both had 40th birthdays on the horizon and this night was the official party. The last few days had been building up to it and with the birthday boy and girl both having extensive hospitality backgrounds, this was always going to be an impressive occasion.

Most of us had brought in bubbles duty free and the evening began with giving those a good nudge before moving over to the function area, many of the group looking resplendent (and colourful) in their locally made garments.

Lovely ladies: Kylie, Danielle, Gillian

The menfolk of our group: Richard, Mark, Garrick, Graham

A marquee had been set up down one end of the resort with banquet and dining table and something of a sound system. A beautiful range of food and drinks had been prepared and of course we tried to do everything justice. Dessert was eaten at a table that had been set up on the beach which was unique and lovely.

Another couple of surprise inclusions in the night helped make it a personal and memorable occasion.

Marguerite and Garrick

Eating, drinking.... eating... but probably more drinking than anything judging by this photo....

The birthday duo, Dan and Mark, pondering speeches in this photo I think!

However, we had to pull the pin before midnight on account of noise – we weren’t being rowdy by any means but I guess it was enough to disturb the beauty sleep of others. A few of us had the excellent idea of going down the road to investigate a nightclub that someone had heard about. That kept us amused for a while. There may have been dancing, there most definitely was drinking, and there may also have been photos taken in strange places which I conveniently no longer have a record of. And whatever time I got to bed, it was completely incompatible with getting up at an ungodly hour for my planned outing the next day.

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This is part of a series recounting my 2009 trip to Vietnam.

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